It’s been well over 10 years since Jenny pressed a copy of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone into my hands, insisting that (1) it would not give me nightmares and that (2) I would really enjoy it. I had avoided King before that, assuming that his books were all about terror—long on plot, short on character, theme, and linguistic excellence. In short, I figured his books were junk.
It turns out that Jenny was right (no surprise there), and since reading The Dead Zone, I’ve become a King fan, gobbling up his novels one after the other. (My favorites are The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Talisman, and the remarkable seven-volume Dark Tower series.) But because I was a late convert to King, there are lots of his books that I haven’t gotten around to. So I’m gradually working on catching up, not with a definite goal of reading all his books—he’s too prolific for me to make that a goal—but with an eye to filling in some of the gaps in my King reading.
Prior to reading Four Past Midnight, I had only read one of King’s story/novella collections, Hearts in Atlantis, which I read primarily for the story “Low Men in Yellow Coats” (King fans will understand why this particular story is significant). So I came into this collection with little experience of King’s short fiction, although I did remember Jenny’s warning that the stories are more concept heavy and scarier than his novels.
Published in 1990, Four Past Midnight is made up of four novellas: “The Langoliers”; “Secret Window, Secret Garden”; “The Library Policeman”; and “The Sun Dog.” I found that the four varied in quality, with “The Langoliers” being my favorite and “The Library Policeman” sitting at the bottom of the heap. Each of the stories does have an intriguing premise—in my mind the weakest story had the best premise—but it’s the execution that makes all the difference.
“The Langoliers” involves an airline flight on which almost all the passengers and flight crew suddenly disappear. Those who remain must figure out what has happened and how they can save themselves from a similar fate. The concept here didn’t particularly excite me, to be honest. It’s actually a common rapture scenario that was bandied about among some of my friends years ago. If I had been on that plane, my gut would have assumed I’d missed the rapture, even though I don’t really believe in it anymore.
What made “The Langoliers” work was how King played with the premise. Eventually the story turns into a sort of meditation on time and how we perceive it. Plus, King provides his patented mix of interesting, well-drawn characters who held my attention even when the story got a little silly. There was, unfortunately, one character who seemed to know and understand too much for no good reason, and some of the relationships moved too quickly. But even as I was feeling exasperated at these flaws I found that at the crucial moment, my heart was in my throat. This was the only story in the collection that garnered this sort of reaction from me.
“Secret Window, Secret Garden” was perhaps a better crafted story, but it suffered from my having seen the movie. Thus, I could see too clearly, too soon what King was doing. The story is about Morton Rainey, a recently divorced writer who is living in the vacation home he and his wife used to share, trying unsuccessfully to write. One day, a man named John Shooter shows up at his house claiming that Rainey stole one of his stories years earlier. Rainey’s efforts to prove that the story was his own keep getting impeded. Before long, Rainey is questioning his own recollections and worrying about what Shooter may do next.
I think the tension in this story unfolded beautifully, and the exploration of how we know the truth is fascinating, even if not terribly original. I’m just having trouble evaluating some crucial elements because I knew some important secrets going in, so some of the narrative tricks struck me as obvious. They might not be, however, on a first read. (They weren’t in the movie.)
“The Library Policeman” was by far my least favorite story, which is a shame because the idea behind it is fabulous. Small-town insurance salesman Sam Peebles is suddenly called upon to give a speech for the rotary club, and despite his irrational fear of libraries, he follows his secretary’s advice and goes to the library for a couple of books that might help him out. The creepy librarian on duty warns him that he must return the books on time or the Library Policeman will come for him. Well, you can guess what happens next.
The setup here is tremendous. King fills the library with atmosphere and menace, which is a neat trick when your audience includes people like me who go to the library for comfort and stress relief! But the story takes an outlandish turn away from the fear on which that setup rests. I didn’t exactly dislike the ensuing monster tale, but it felt like a different story. Also, there’s one scene of violence involving a child that is brutal and shocking in a way I rarely expect in a King novel, mostly because that bit of violence is all too real.
“The Sun Dog” is more successful than “The Library Policeman” because it sticks to its central idea. A boy named Kevin Delevan receives a Polaroid camera for his 15th birthday, you know, the kind that spits out a photo that develops before your eyes. The photos that develop are strange. They are all of the same thing, and none of them show the thing being photographed. Creepy, no? And even creepier when the subject of the photograph starts to turn toward the photographer.
This final story is pretty much all concept. Unlike in some of King’s other stories, there’s no deeper meaning here, and that’s okay. Kevin and his dad have a relationship that kept me rooting for them, and the story itself stays on point from beginning to end. It’s the simplicity that makes it work in a way that “The Library Policeman” does not.
But perhaps the greatest pleasure in this book was in King’s own introductions, both to the volume as a whole and to each story. I find King’s writing on books and writing to be generally fascinating. He may not write high-falutin’ literature, but he knows what he’s doing, and he’s smart and thoughtful about his craft. And so I leave you with King’s own thoughts about how he responds when people ask when he’s going to write something serious:
The fact is, almost all the stuff I have written—and that includes a lot of the funny stuff—was written in a serious frame of mind, I can remember very few occasions when I sat at the typewriter laughing uncontrollably over some wild and crazy bit of fluff I had just finished churning out. I’m never going to be Reynolds Price or Larry Woiwode—it isn’t in me—but that doesn’t mean I don’t care as deeply about what I do. I have to do what I can do, however—as Nils Lofgren once put it: “I gotta be my dirty self … I won’t play no jive.”
If real—meaning !!SOMETHING THAT COULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN!!—is your definition of serious, you are in the wrong place and you should by all means leave the building. But please remember as you go that I’m not the only one doing business at this particular site; Franz Kafka once had an office here, and George Orwell, and Shirley Jackson, and Jorge Louis Borges, and Jonathan Swift, and Lewis Carroll. A glance at the directory in the lobby shows the present tenants include Thomas Berger, Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Carroll, Thomas Pynchon, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, Issac Bashevis Singer, Katherine Dunn, and Mark Halpern.
I am doing what I do for the most serious reasons: love, money, and obsession. The tale of the irrational is the sanest way I know of expressing the world in which I live. These tales have served me as instruments of both metaphor and morality; they continue to offer the best window I know on the question of how we perceive things and the corollary question of how we do or do not behave on the basis of our perceptions. I have explored these questions as well as I can within the limits of my talent and intelligence. I am no one’s National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize winner, but I’m serious, all right. If you don’t believe anything else, believe this: when I take you by your hand and begin to talk, my friend, I believe every word I say.